Lao (ພາສາລາວ pháa-sǎa láo) is the main language of Laos. Thai is also closely related to Lao, and the Isaan dialect spoken in the northeast is, with minor differences in vocabulary aside, virtually identical to Lao.
It is best not to try to learn Lao from local magazines, local books or the internet as they are sometimes fully Thai language (and completely not Lao). The best way to learn Lao is to learn Thai first, then learn Lao while listening to Lao people speaking.
Lao is a tonal language with six tones in the Vientiane dialect: low, mid, high, rising, high falling, and low falling. Meanings are dependent on the tone, so try not to inflect your sentences; in particular, questions should be pronounced as flat statements, without the rising intonation ("...yes?") typical to English questions.
The script used to write Lao has the same Brahmic base as Thai and Khmer, and Thai readers will be able to figure out most of it. The Lao written language is essentially alphabetic and, thanks to extensive post-revolutionary meddling, now considerably more phonetic than Thai or Khmer. Still, there are 30 consonants, 15 vowel symbols plus 4 tone marks to learn, and the Lao also share the Thai aversion to spaces between words. Lao remains a bit of challenge to pick up, even though it is usually considered easier to learn than Thai.
Lao romanization is bedeviled by the incompatibility between French and English pronunciation. Most older transliterations are French-based, while newer ones are English-based. The French-style "Vientiane", for example, is more accurately spelled "Wiang Chan" in English. Wikitravel uses a modern English-based orthography modeled on the Thai system, but the French transliterations have been noted below when appropriate.
Speak Thai already? Here's a three-step program for instant Lao fluency:
The letter "r" must be eliminated.
At the beginning of a word, "r" turns into "l": roi → loi "hundred"
Within a word, "r" turns into "l": karunaa → kalunaa "please"
In a cluster, "r" disappears completely: prathet → pathet "country"
All "ch" turn into "x" (pronounced "s"). chang → xang "elephant"
Say baw instead of mai when you want to say "no" or ask a question.
Of course, there's quite a bit more to it than that, but it's a start!
Lao has a complicated set of vowels that distinguishes between vowel length (short and long) and vowel position (front and back). Vowel signs are always written around consonants.
French transliterations use "ou" for "u" (eg. "Louang Prabang") and often tag an unpronounced "e" at the end of words to stop the consonant from being swallowed (eg. "Kaysone Phomvihane").
like in the 'i' in 'nit'
like in the 'ee' in 'beer' or 'Feet'
like in the 'u' in 'bum'
like in the 'a' in 'father'
like in the 'a' in 'fat'
like in the 'e' in 'fence'
like in the 'a' in 'bait'
like in the 'u' for 'fruit'
like in the 'oo' in 'mood'
like in the 'aw' in 'saw'
like in the 'um' in 'drum'
not found in English, but similar to the 'uh' in 'huh'
not found in English, but similar to the 'i' in 'sir' or the 'eux' from the French 'deux'
Lao distinguishes between aspirated ("with a puff of air") and unaspirated ("without a puff of air") consonants. Unaspirated consonants exist in English too, but never alone: compare the sound of 'p' in "pot" (aspirated) and "spot" (unaspirated). Many English speakers find it helpful to pronounce an imperceptible little "m" in front to 'stop' the puff.
In romanized Lao, the distinction is usually represented by writing aspirated consonants with "h" and unaspirated ones without it. In particular, "ph" represents a hard aspirated 'p' and not a soft 'f', and Phongsali is thus pronounced "Pongsalee". Likewise, "th" is a hard aspirated 't' and hence That Luang is pronounced "Tat Luang".
like 'b' in "bed"
not used in Wikitravel, but in other romanizations may represent 's'
like 'd' in "dog"
like 'f' in "fan"
not used in Wikitravel, but in other romanizations may represent unaspirated 'k'
like 'h' in "help"
like 'dg' in "edge"
like 'k' in "skate" (unaspirated)
like 'c' in "cat" (aspirated)
like 'l' in "love"
like 'm' in "mother"
like 'n' in "nice"
like 'ni' in "onion", can also be used at the beginning of words
like 'ng' in "sing", can also be used at the beginning of words
like 'p' in "spit" (unaspirated)
like 'p' in "pig" (aspirated)
not used the modern orthography, should be pronounced as 'l', 'h' or ignored
like 'ss' in "hiss",
like 't' sound in "stab"
like 't' in "top"
not used in Wikitravel, but in other romanizations may represent 'w'
like 'w' in "weight"
like 'y' in "yes"
like 'ss' in "hiss", completely identical to 's'
Phrases in this section are not consistently transcribed with BGN/PCGN and Wikitravel's romanization guidelines. If you are familiar with the language, please help fix them up!
(Pen Jung Dai?)
How are you?
Fine, thank you.
What is your name?
(Seuh Jâo Maen/Bhen Nyung?)
My name is ______ .
(Seuh Khàwy Maen/Bpen _____.)
(Baw Pen Nyung.)
Excuse me/I'm Sorry. (Begging Pardon)
Goodbye and Take Care
(Sôhk Dee Deuh)
Do you speak English?
(Jâo Wâo Pháa-Sǎa Ung-Kit Dai Baw?)
I can't speak English very well.
(Khàwy Baw Wâo Pháa-Sǎa Ung-Kit Dai Dee)
I can't speak ____.
(Khàwy Wâo Pháa-Sǎa ____ Baw Dai.)
Please speak slowly.
(Kalunaa, Wâo Sah-Saah)
Do you understand?
(Jâo Khào Jai Baw?)
--Yes. I understand.
(Maen Laeow. Khàwy Khào Jai)
--No. I don't understand.
(Baw. Khàwy Baw Khào Jai)
Go to sleep
Where is the bathroom?
(Hàwng Nâm Yuu Sǎi?)
(Ethnicity)I am ____.
(Khoy Pen Khon ____.)
Leave me alone.
Leave me alone. ('Ya gwuan khoy')
Don't touch me!
('Ya jup khoy)
I'll call the police.
('Khoy si toh jaeng dtum louat.)
Police! (Dtum louat!)
Stop! Thief! (Yud! Kee Luck)
can you help me?.
I need your help. ('Suay khoy dai boh')
It's an emergency.
It's an emergency. (souk sern)
(Khoy lohng taang)
I lost my wallet.
(Khoy seeuh gkapow)
I lost my bag.
(Khoy seeuh tong)
(Khoy pben kai/Khoy boh sabai)
I've been injured.
(Khoy jep/Khoy Theug baad jep.)
I need a doctor.
I need a doctor. (Khoy tong kan Maw ')
Can I use/borrow your phone?
(Khoy sai/yeum tolasup dai boh?)
May I talk to _______? (Khoy lom num _______?"")
I dont understand
koi boh kow jai
Lao numbers are effectively identical to Thai, the two quirks worth noting being that 20 is sao (not yii-sip) and 100 is loi. Speakers of Cantonese will find many quite familiar.
Lao has its own set of numerals, but these are used quite rarely.
(meun, sip phan)
(saen, loi phan)
(teu, phan laan)
number (train, bus, etc.)
_____ What time?
(Meuh wán nii)
Deuan Kaw-La-Kót Da
(sii nam taan)
(sii ke thao)
Bus and train
How much is a ticket to _____?
How much is a ticket to _____? (kaw ta dai butt bie ____?)
One ticket to _____, please.
One ticket to _____, please. (kaw butt ahn diew)
Where does this train/bus go?
Where does this train/bus go? (lot fi/train, may/bus bai sigh?)
Where is the train/bus to _____?
Where is the train/bus to _____? (lot fi/may pai ___ yu sai?)
Does this train/bus stop in _____?
Does this train/bus stop in _____? (lot khan nii jort ____ baw?)
When does the train/bus for _____ leave?
When does the train/bus for _____ leave? (lot fi/may pai ____ awk jak moung?)
When will this train/bus arrive in _____?
When will this bus arrive in _____? (lot fi/may khan nii hort ____ jak moung?)
I just came from _____? (khoy ma jark ___)
How do I get to _____ ?
How do I get to _____ ? (khoy bpay _____ baep dai?)